PERSONAL SHOPPER (2017), the second collaboration between French director Olivier Assayas and Kristen Stewart, is the type of movie that gives me fits.
It’s complex and artistic, and its story is purposely left unclear, and for a story guy like me, that drives me crazy. It’s like reading a well-written poem. You appreciate its artistry and spend hours pouring over its words looking for meaning, trying to find out just what it is the poet is trying to say, and on those occasions when you fail to reach a satisfying conclusion, you have to ask yourself: was there anything there to begin with? Which is why when all is said and done, I prefer to read novels.
That’s how I felt while watching PERSONAL SHOPPER, a ghost story that plays out like a supernatural drama as opposed to a horror movie or thriller, and that’s okay. I loved the style of this movie. But the wheels inside my head are still spinning over its content.
Maureen Cartwright (Kristen Stewart) is an American living in Paris working as a personal shopper to a celebrity who due to her fame cannot shop unencumbered. But the real reason Maureen is there, and the reason she is so somber and haunted, is her twin brother died there a month earlier. And Maureen isn’t just mourning. She’s looking for a sign.
Her brother was a medium, as is Maureen, and he had promised her that if he died he would send her a sign from the other side. And so she spends dark nights inside the house where her brother had lived, waiting for his message. In fact, at one point in the movie, when asked what she is doing in Paris, she actually says she is waiting. Her search isn’t restricted to her brother’s house, but pretty much everywhere she goes in Paris, she is on the lookout for some sign from her brother, and when she is contacted, whether through strange noises in the dark or haunting apparitions or mysterious text messages, it sets off a myriad of questions. Is it her brother? Is it someone else? If it is someone else, is it a spirit or a real person? Or are there multiple spirits/persons trying to contact her? Do they pose a threat?
These are all fascinating questions, and I enjoyed following Maureen on her search for answers. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t really provide satisfying responses to these questions, as it remains vague about most of them. Perhaps this is the point, that when seeking out those things that haunt us, there aren’t always clear definitive answers. Either way, PERSONAL SHOPPER is definitely a movie more about questions than answers.
Director Olivier Assayas drew me in immediately with his gloomy and somber cinematography as the film opens with Maureen arriving at her deceased brother’s home, which sets up a very creepy scene early on: Maureen’s first night alone in the house. She’s there in the dark, and she hears a noise, and unlike heroines in traditional horror movies who call out “Hello?” loudly and hyperventilate, Maureen silently and slowly makes her way through the pitch black corridors. Of course, at this point in the movie, the audience isn’t aware of what she is doing there or who she is looking for, which only adds to the weirdness of the sequence.
And this is pretty much how director Assayas’ screenplay unfolds. He doesn’t really tell the story in a straight narrative. For instance, the film nearly reaches its halfway mark before it’s revealed clearly what Maureen’s job is, that she works as a personal shopper.
PERSONAL SHOPPER is one very moody and somber film, and as such, is driven by Kristen Stewart’s subtle yet dominating performance. She’s in nearly every scene of the movie, and the film doesn’t suffer for it. She is captivating to watch, and in spite of the purposely vague narrative, she held my interest throughout. Her performance here reminded me a bit of Casey Affleck’s performance in MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016). Like Affleck, she’s haunted and pained throughout, as if she is suffering from a permanent migraine. Her intense search for answers becomes almost palpable.
It’s interesting thematically that while on the one hand Maureen is dealing with spirits while she searches for a sign from her brother, on the other hand, her job keeps her in contact with a celebrity who also seems more dead than alive, who treats people horribly and is oblivious to everyone around her, as if she, like a spirit, is living in some other world. Likewise, even though she has a boyfriend back home who she communicates with via Skype, Maureen struggles with human relationships. She seems to enjoy being alone. It’s almost as if she too is living in another world, and there are certainly parallels between her story and her brother’s.
For example, they’re twins. They’re both mediums. They both share the same cardiovascular defect which caused her brother to suffer a heart attack and die while only in his twenties. Her brother is literally dead, and she seems to be figuratively dead. The film shows two different worlds intertwined, so that it’s difficult to know which one is which and who is in which one. It’s fascinating to think about, and the film throws out hints and suggestions that come close to turning the entire plot on its head.
The film doesn’t skimp on the suspense either. There’s the aforementioned opening scene in the dark house which is as creepy as they get. There are scenes of spectral appearances, and one of the most suspenseful sequences involves Maureen receiving a series of strange text messages which she at first hopes are from her brother, but then she has doubts and fears that perhaps someone- a spirit or a very real person – might be stalking her.
The best part of PERSONAL SHOPPER is it’s about as far from a by-the-numbers thriller as you can get. It’s a much more complex movie than most, and for that alone, it’s worth watching.
It’s a haunting film, empowered by Kristen Stewart’s mesmerizing performance, and by Olivier Assayas’ artistic direction. The camera gets in real close during the suspense scenes, and it takes its time with the spectral sequences, allowing for full impact when apparitions appear.
Other scenes end in mid-dialogue, often giving the distinct notion that what we are seeing, especially in terms of Maureen, is only part of what is going on. Indeed, this is a movie where the missing parts seem to be more prominent and powerful than the parts we are shown.
Assayas’ cryptic screenplay is like a puzzle, and as such, for a moviegoer like myself who enjoys a good story, it’s frustrating. The ending in particular leaves its audience with one big question mark.
Yet, this doesn’t take away from the effectiveness of the movie. Its somber mood and unsettling eeriness perfectly permeate the tale of Maureen’s heartfelt and painful search for her deceased brother.
PERSONAL SHOPPER is a movie more interested in questions than answers. Maureen spends the whole movie asking questions, looking for answers, and by the end of the movie, she seems to have found them, but just what they are and what they mean for her and for the audience, remains unknown.
Books by Michael Arruda:
TIME FRAME, science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.
IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.
FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.